Hundreds of worshippers from North Cyprus have attended a special Ramazan Bayramı (Eid al-Fitr) service at one of Islam’s holiest sites in Larnaca on 7th July. The prayers at the Hala Sultan Tekke were led by Dr. Talip Atalay, head of the TRNC’s Religious (Islamic) Affairs Department and as Müftü, the most senior Islamic cleric on the island.
The pilgrimage was organised with the help of the United Nations and Greek Cypriot authorities. According to a statement by the UN, coaches carrying 1,000 Turks and Turkish Cypriots crossed the Green Line on Thursday morning and were given a police escort to Hala Sultan Tekke, who then escorted them back to the border after the service.
Hala Sultan Tekke: Europe’s holiest Islamic site
Located on the southeast coast of Cyprus, Hala Sultan Tekke is one of the holiest sites in the Islamic world. Set on the edge of a salt lake, its serene grounds include palm and cypress trees, from which its Ottoman-styled domes and minaret peep out.
The site dates back to the 7th century and was named after Hala Sultan, the prophet Muhammed’s aunt and wet nurse. The wife of a successful commander in the Rashidun Caliphate, Hala Sultan was laid to rest at the spot where she died during the siege of Larnaca.
The current complex, which includes a mosque, mausoleum, minaret, cemetery and living quarters, was built by the Ottomans during the 18th century following the discovery of Hala Sultan’s tomb.
Thursday’s special religious service was the sixth to be held at Hala Sultan Tekke since 2014. Previously, even after the borders opened in 2003, many Muslims residing in the TRNC could not visit the mosque due to strict border entry requirements imposed by the Greek Cypriot authorities, who had also refused to allow clerics from the TRNC to conduct the service.
In 2013, its Imam Şakir Alemdar complained to Cyprus Mail that Nicos Anastasiades had ignored him and had refused to acknowledge any Muslim holy days following his election as President of the Republic of Cyprus.
“Why, as President, you [Nicos Anastasiades] didn’t open up your mouth and say ‘Happy Eid, happy Bayram’? Huh? Why not? Barack Obama, the American President, said it. The American Ambassador sent me a celebration for Ramadan,” said Alemdar, who has been based at Hala Sultan Tekke since 2008.
He also highlighted the Greek Cypriot authorities’ poor attitude towards the holy site, which he claimed they treated more like “an ancient monument [instead of a place of worship], so it’s only open during museum hours.”
The situation changed radically a year after Imam Alemdar’s comments went public. Under the auspices of the Swedish Embassy, an unprecedented deal was struck between the island’s two religious leaders, Archbishop Chrysostomos II of the Greek Orthodox Church of Cyprus and Dr Atalay, the Müftü of Cyprus. The 2014 agreement, part of the Religious Track of the Cyprus Peace Process (RTCPP), committed both men to supporting the religious freedom of the other.
RTCPP already had a good track record, initiating dialogue between Cyprus’ religious leaders as early as 2009. Since then, it has broadened its scope, supporting efforts to improve religious freedom and community relations island-wide. As a result, thousands of pilgrims have been able to visit their holy sites in Cyprus, while their religious leaders have been encouraged to take a more progressive role in the Peace Process.
Cyprus’ religious leaders send Bayram messages
Last year saw the religious leaders come together to issue joint statements condemning terrorism after the tragedies in Paris, Beirut and Ankara. They have also held summits and roundtables to discuss the needs and concerns of the island’s diverse religious communities.
Warm relations were again evidenced during this Ramazan Bayramı, with Dr Atalay receiving good will messages from Archbishop Chrysostomos II and religious leaders from Cyprus’ Armenian Orthodox, Maronite and Catholic communities.
Thanking his peers for their kind messages during his Bayram sermon, Dr Atalay also spoke about the significance of the month of Ramazan for Muslims and expressed his deep sorrow for those who had been killed by terrorists in recent weeks by those claiming to act in the name of Islam:
“We’ve been fasting, we have been helping the poor and needy, and doing charity work. We hope and we pray that being here at Hala Sultan Tekke is a good example for peace for the region and the whole world.
The Müftü also acknowledged those who had enabled the pilgrimage: “We are very happy to be here today for Ramazan and we are thankful to the authorities, the Archbishop, Mr Kasoulides and the United Nations for their help for us to come here at the Hala Sultan Tekke.”
He added that Cyprus’ religious leaders are “praying for world peace”.
Swedish ambassador calls for greater religious freedom
Also on 7th July, at a press conference with Dr Atalay, Archbishop Chrysostomos, and Imam Alemdar, , the Swedish ambassador Klas Gierow pointed to this new reality, unseen in Cyprus for the past 50 years where: “Religious leaders were committed to upholding the rights of one another to worship freely on their key religious days at their holy sites.”
The diplomat added, “This spirit needs to become commonplace across Cyprus, so there is [constant] freedom of worship in churches and mosques.”